Reflecting on Holy Week and Easter with Ian Fleming, James Bond and Benjamin Pratt

ENDANGERED HOLY SITES IN UKRAINE—This photograph shows the interior of St. George’s Church in western Ukraine, one of the region’s uniquely hand-crafted wooden churches. It is part of a cluster of 16 surviving wooden churches in western Ukraine and Eastern Poland that now are considered a World Heritage Site. Built in the late 1400s, St. George’s in Drohobych is one of the oldest and best-preserved timber churches of Galicia. Because Russia has targeted relatively few bombing raids on western Ukraine, this particular religious masterpiece so far has not been damaged. (NOTE: If you care to share this image of St. George’s with others, Wikimedia Commons makes this photograph by “Moahim” easy to share. You will find more photos of this church below.)

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From Good Friday’s ‘No!’ to Easter Sunday’s ‘Yes!’

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EDITOR’s NOTE: Over many years, author, pastor and counselor Benjamin Pratt has talked with Christian communities about the deep drama that unfolds in what Christians call Holy Week, the observances leading up to Easter. Sometimes, as in this column, he draws on illustrations from his literary research into the moral lessons in the novels of Ian Fleming.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins

Bond, James Bond 007 was married only once. Then, in one of the most shocking turns in the course of Ian Fleming’s novels—Bond’s wife was shot and killed by Bond’s archenemy on the day of their wedding.

Bond began to lose his edge: He didn’t show up for work; he began to deal with his loss by drinking, eating too much, gambling, losing his sense of mission. His boss, M, had Bond examined by psychiatrist-neurologist Sir James Malony who reported to M that Bond was in shock, and that his behavior was quite appropriate. Then, he concluded with the startling line: “We must teach them that there is no top to disaster.”

Everyone of us has a top to disaster. As we are seeing in the ruined streets of Ukrainian cities, that trauma varies widely: the death of a child, rape, torture, loss of a home. In our own country, during this pandemic, so many of us have lost jobs and homes, suffered from life-threatening conditions from COVID to cancer.

When we go over the top of our disaster limit we are prone to reduce our world to a small, predictable, controlled safe place. Risking our talents is the last thing we are prone to do.

But, Sir James Malony says an even more remarkable thing in response to M’s request of help for Bond. His answer is We must give him an impossible job.  In contrast to our thought that he should take a month on a cruise liner, we hear that “he should be given an impossible job.”

So M sends Bond on a mission to infiltrate and destroy a castle created for people who have lost faith in life, a castle where people can kill themselves. (Bond could have been one of those who had gone to kill himself since he had lost faith. Instead he has come to risk facing and destroying it.)  The man who created this castle of death is the same devil who killed Bond’s wife. By confronting and killing the devil of despair, Bond confronts his own despair and is on the road to healing his own wounds.  (Yes, it is an allegory that is as much about the inner journey as the outer journey.)

How is this relevant to our journey toward Easter in 2022?

Christians around the world are entering Holy Week, which contains the three most important days of the Christian calendar. Holidays focus on history. That’s the way most of us approach the ancient traditions and family customs that we love to repeat each year. But, the yearlong cycle of Christian holidays are much more than that. These seasons are timeless, yet they also are very clear invitations to affirm our personal journey as God’s people.

Now, in Holy Week, everything converges in a kaleidoscope of life and death, hope and tragedy, community and isolation. In these final days before Easter, we pass through enormous sorrow and abandonment as we move toward the spectacular joy we proclaim at Easter. On Good Friday we experience the top of disaster, recalling how Jesus was tacked to a tree—his spirit broken. Holy Saturday is a long period of waiting when, some Christian traditions say, Jesus descended into Hell. Easter brings resurrection—in this life and the next.

We might think of Friday as the day of “No!” As we personally experience Good Fridays, life throws us against a rock, tacks us to a tree, devastates our innocence and dreams for our marriage, our country, our children, our lives. That “No!” breaks our spirit and almost destroys our faith in the goodness of God. On such Fridays, the pain is excruciating, and it is appropriate to be angry, enraged and in deep grief.

Saturday is “I don’t now.” We move—as Jesus’s followers did 2,000 years ago—into a soft cynicism or despair. We can’t stay in Friday’s intense pain, but we haven’t reached Easter’s joy. Saturday is the janitorial day. We can’t mourn; we can’t celebrate; we don’t sing Alleluias. So, we get up and start moving through our many tasks. Grief and anger from Friday evolves into a flat, soft, lazy, cynical bitterness, a spiritual deadness. This is life without any spice, vitality or vigor. This is spiritual accidie—a term I describe in my books on Ian Fleming and on coping with the challenges of caregiving.

And, Sunday? “YES!” We yearn for Easter, when we are reborn with new directions, new possibilities. It is the day of a clean and restored heart. We are able to sing praises and live with purpose, compassion and gratitude. The Psalmist writes: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, not a cynical spirit, not a bitter spirit. You will not reject a humble and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 51)

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not suggesting that we get ourselves off our own hands by attending to others or a larger mission. Turning outward comes after we have done the painful interior work of feeling our loss. You may be aware that hospice will not accept volunteers who are not at least one year away from a significant death.

Eventually, the grief journey must include turning outward to heal the losses and grief in ourselves in what feels like an impossible risk.

Perhaps real recovery takes place only when we take our own wound and turn it outward to give generously and with gratitude to others.

This year, many Christian churches will be including prayers and other symbolic signs of our solidarity with the people Ukraine who continue to suffer seemingly endless cycles of violence.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said, upon the death of a close friend: “I must love myself into action lest I wither in despair.” Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest shared that “the wound of Jesus is like the Grand Canyon, a deep incision in the earth’s surface that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and meaning.” The wounds of Jesus have become a source of beauty for many of us.

Our wounds may become a source of beauty and meaning for others also. The pain can end and the healing take place when we take the beauty of our own pain and extend it as a gift to others. As their hurt is healed, so is ours.

Let me illustrate by the story of a real life James Bond—a sheet metal worker named Michael Flocco. Michael and his wife had only one child. He was killed when the plane went into the Pentagon on 9/11. It was an over the top disaster experience. Michael stopped going to work, he sat at the kitchen table every morning looking at the family photo album which contained pictures of his son. He started with coffee but by lunch he was hitting hard liquor to drown his pain and grief. One day, Michael’s wife saw an ad for sheet metal workers needed to repair the Pentagon. She cut it out and placed it in the family album. That morning Michael found the ad and called his boss and told him he wanted to go to work at the Pentagon repairing the building. Michael’s choice to work repairing the very building where is son was killed must have felt like an impossible job. It became the place he began to heal his soul and recover his life.

It became a place for Easter Joy!

Exterior of St. George’s church. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interior of St. George’s church in Ukraine. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Care to learn more?

Read the other related columns …

This is one of four Jewish-Christian-and-Muslim holiday columns in mid-April 2022 that include photographs of endangered holy sites in Ukraine. Here are links to all four of them:

RABBI LENORE BOHM writes Passover’s power to inspire action: This year, we will be thinking of Ukraine (the accompanying photographs shows the Brodsky Synagogue in Kyiv).

RABBI JACK RIEMER calls us to Proclaim a Passover ‘Dayenu’ that lifts up the people of Ukraine (with photos of the Kharkiv Choral Synagogue, the largest in Ukraine).

MARKING RAMADAN, Victor Begg reminds us that All of Our Faiths Call on us to be Peacemakers (with photos of the Al-Salam Mosque in Odessa).

REFLECTING ON HOLY WEEK and EASTER, Benjamin Pratt draws on illustrations from Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass (with St. George’s church in western Ukraine).

And for more on Benjamin Pratt …

VISIT BENJAMIN PRATT’S AMAZON PAGE: Go to his author page and you’ll learn more about him, plus you’ll see links to three of his books.

Get a copy of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass from Amazon.

Benjamin Pratt writes: “I have been bewildered by the staying power of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust. It was not until I began reading and studying Fleming’s ‘Bond, James Bond,’ that I was convinced that Bond was a knight out to slay these contemporary dragons threatening our lives. All of Fleming’s 007 tales follow a common theme that he identified in his first Bond novel, Casino Royale, as parables about evil people. Fleming’s stories have considerable mythological, allegorical and theological depth that are compelling to this day. Fleming found most of the traditional Seven Deadly Sins to be closer to virtues in contemporary culture.

While an editor on the staff of the Sunday Times, Fleming suggested the famous London-based newspaper publish a series of essays on the traditional Seven Deadly Sins. Fleming later saw that this collection of essays was published as a now out-of-print book called simply, The Seven Deadly Sins. In his Foreword to that volume, Fleming lays out seven modern deadlier sins, a list that turns out to be a roadmap to his overarching intention for writing the James Bond novels. Fleming’s modern sins that will send people to Hell are: Avarice, Cruelty, Snobbery, Hypocrisy, Self-righteousness, Moral Cowardice and Malice.

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Benjamin Pratt on the Wonders of Life Along the Shore

Photograph by Benjamin Pratt.

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Strand Feeding: Life in Community

By BENJAMIN PRATT

One of the basic tenets of ReadTheSpirit is that we live better in community than in isolation. In 2007, on the day this publishing house was founded, 10 Principles of Publishing were posted, including:

Principle 4: It’s about connection, not competition. Our voices should call people together, not separate them.

I have been a part of this community since before that first day and I can tell you: For 15 years, we have been building community. Many authors of these columns are sharing ideas and encouraging each other in a collaborative way, convinced that the ache in our American soul is due to the tension between believers in individuality and believers in communities.

Some Bottlenose Dolphins live this truth.

Everywhere in the world, the moon and the tide change constantly. The Low Country of South Carolina includes Kiawah and Seabrook among other communities that are laced with vast marshes layered with reeds, brackish waters, fish and other marine life including alligators, snakes and myriads of birds. Even dolphins are seen in marsh waters. It is a thriving eco-system.

One of the most common species of dolphins, the Bottlenose can live in most parts of the ocean, with the exception of Antarctica and the arctic. In the United States, these dolphins travel up and down the East Coast, from Maine to Florida as the seasons fluctuate. Bottlenose dolphins live in social groups, or pods, that consist of multiple generations. This may include grandparents, parents, children and their siblings. Offshore dolphins tend to live among hundreds of individuals. Whereas inshore, or estuarine, dolphins—such as the pods residing near Kiawah and Seabrook—tend to live in smaller groups. Members of pods spend their days playing, hunting, and exploring together. A dolphin’s main food sources consist of local species of fish, squid, octopus, jellyfish, and a variety of crustaceans. These dolphins are partial to sea trout, red drum and striped mullets that can be found in the tidal rivers that run into the Atlantic.

Bottlenose dolphins are common in this area. Like us, they are mammals; they breathe air and bear live young. They are generally slate gray to charcoal gray in color with a short and stubby rostrum, hence the name Bottlenose. Males can live 40-45 years while females live up to 60. They range in size from 6-9 feet and weigh 300 to 600 pounds. They typically swim 2-4 miles per hour but for brief periods can reach speeds of 20 mph. Dolphins can hold their breath as long as 5 minutes. They have up to 104 very sharp teeth.

Dolphins are extremely social creatures, generally forming pods of 2-15 individuals. There are three basic groups: maternity groups made up of females and their most recent calves; adolescent dolphins form mixed-sex juvenile groups until they are sexually mature; mature females often return to maternity groups and males form bachelor groups of strongly bonded pairs. The calves nurse 1 1/2 to 2 years and remain with their mothers for 3 to 6 years to learn survival skills. Mating season tends to peak in spring and fall but may occur at any time. Gestation averages 12 months. Calves weigh 25-40 pounds, are 3-4 feet long and are usually born tail first.

Bottlenose dolphins are opportunistic feeders. They eat a wide variety of fish species, usually in depths less than 10 feet. They are active both day and night. Dolphins listen passively for sounds produced by the fish they hunt but also use echolocation to find their prey.

Dolphins sometimes work together during feeding, using a variety of methods to entrap fish. Small groups may converge on a central point surrounding the fish, then tighten the circle until the fish are forced to the surface where the rest of the group is waiting to feed.

What is Strand Feeding among Dolphins?

At Seabrook Island, dolphins have been observed using a technique called strand feeding. Strand is the term used for the point where beach and water meet. The dolphins herd schools of fish onto a sloping sandy beach or mudflat, to seize their prey. Strand feeding, so-called because the prey fish are stranded on the shore, occurs along the East Coast only in South Carolina and Georgia, and has been reported in just a few other places around the world. A sophisticated form of hunting that involves teamwork, good communication and expert timing, strand feeding testifies to the intelligence and ingenuity of these extraordinary marine mammals. Underwater, small groups of two to six dolphins, sometimes more, herd fish tightly together into a “bait ball.” Then, forming a line, the dolphins accelerate to create a bow wave that forces their prey onto shore as they, close behind, surge out of the water in unison.

Recently, I’ve witnessed this communication/cooperation principle in nature through the communal nature of these Bottlenose dolphins. With camera in hand, I captured this unique event at low tide in Seabrook Island.

Keep in mind that not all dolphins know how to strand feed. Of the two pods of dolphins in this area, only one pod strand feeds. This behavior is passed from mother to calf. For reasons unknown to scientists, adult dolphins are not able to learn the feeding technique once they reach a certain age. Because of this, a little less than half of the island’s dolphin population can perform strand feeding. This delicate act is at risk of becoming extinct! It is hoped that through education and the dedicated work of people like Lauren Rust and her volunteers, this learned feeding behavior will be passed to future generations to experience.

Patricia P. Schaefer, in her book Dolphin Strand Feeding, says, “Dolphins communicate through clicks and whistles that we have yet to translate, echolocation and body language. They have developed a culture with tight social bonds and rituals to teach their young, such as blowing circular bubble walls to corral a school of fish.”

In 1965, Ian and Sylvia released “How Come We Can’t Talk To Each other Anymore?” That has been our theme song for far too many years. I think it is time to let the dolphins teach us: How We Can Talk and Work Together Once Again.

Thank you, Mother Nature.

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And, think about this …

List the members of your most important pod.

What are the most significant contributions to your life that you receive from your pod?

What do you wish you received from you pod that you do not?

How have you communicated this need to your pod?

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Care to learn more?

Here’s a short video shot in the same area where Ben wrote this story:

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Based near Washington D.C., the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a retired pastoral counselor with 40 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a retired member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. He writes regularly for ReadTheSpirit online magazine.

His book, A Guide for Caregivers, has helped thousands of families nationwide cope with the wide array of challenges involved as more than 50 million of us serve as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. In 2021, Ben will continue to write about caregiving issues for us.

You can learn more about him, and all of his books, by visiting his Amazon author page.

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Did you know 007 is more than Bond girls, high-tech spycraft and hit songs?

Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass

A BIBLE STUDY WITH JAMES BOND?

Long before 007’s global appeal was defined by Bond girls, futuristic spycraft, exotic weapons and chart-topping theme songs, Ian Fleming hoped that his Bond series would have a far different focus. In fact, he wrote the series of bestselling spy novels as a wake-up call to people around the world about the deadliest sins plaguing our planet.

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Surprising? Yes—but true.

In fact, one of Fleming’s central passions throughout his career—as a former spy, a famous journalist and finally a bestselling novelist—was urging the world to understand the deadly temptations that could destroy our global community.

Before he created James Bond, who became one of the world’s most popular media franchises, Fleming was best known as one of Britain’s top journalists. He was the foreign-desk manager for the news group that owned The Sunday Times, the UK’s largest-circulation newspaper. In that role, he oversaw the paper’s worldwide network of correspondents during the height of the Cold War; and he became convinced that journalists had a duty to alert their readers to the world’s looming dangers. So, he proposed that the newspaper commission a series of seven essays on the so-called Seven Deadly Sins—with each chapter written by one of Britain’s literary luminaries. His colleagues agreed. The essays appeared in The Times and later were bound as a book.

When that major project was finished, however, Fleming was disappointed by the scope of what the authors had written. He worried that those traditional seven deadly sins were not really the most troubling temptations circling our planet. Fleming was convinced that there were even deadlier sins, some of which were masquerading as virtues in our pop culture. Fleming was convinced that the deadliest temptations in our world actually were:

  1. Moral Cowardice
  2. Hypocrisy
  3. Self-Righteousness
  4. Cruelty & Malice
  5. Avarice
  6. Snobbery
  7. And Accidie

Take a moment and read that list again. Is your head nodding? Fleming came up with this list more than half a century ago—but those seven deadliest sins certainly look like forces running rampant across the U.S. and around the world today. Don’t they?

How did Fleming plan to issue his worldwide alert to these dangers? Beginning in the early 1950s, Fleming wrote his James Bond novels as a series of gripping, page-turning parables showing how these seven deadlier sins could run amok—both among Fleming’s super-villains and within his 007 super-agent’s own heart, mind and soul.

To learn more about this adventure-story-within-an-adventure-story, we asked author Benjamin Pratt to tell about his own adventures with Fleming and Bond.

Benjamin Pratt on his own 13-year Bond Adventure:

Many of you have followed my analysis of the Bond tales since the release in 2008 of my book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass. Ian Fleming has generally been considered by critics as a light-weight author. I consider him a heavy-weight who has produced the first narrative treatment of the Deadly Sins in centuries following in the footsteps of Chaucer and Dante.

This all began when Ian Fleming suggested to his fellow editors at the London Sunday Times that they commission a series of essays on the traditional seven deadly sins. Fleming even suggested the authors he hoped would cover each of the seven sins. His fellow editors not only accepted his idea, they accepted six of the seven authors Fleming had suggested. But, Fleming was not satisfied. More was needed. He wrote that the traditional seven deadly sins will no longer keep us out of Heaven—and that there are seven deadlier sins that will get us into Hell.

Taking on this literary challenge himself, Fleming personified those seven deadlier sins as the evil characters Bond pursued—and in the temptations Bond encountered in his own life. The Bond tales are akin to the mythical tales of Saint George and the Dragon—with 007’s vocation ultimately aimed at slaying the world’s seven deadliest sins.

What’s the connection with Bible study in my book about Fleming’s Bond quest?

You won’t find a biblical connection explicitly detailed in Fleming’s novels—unless you can recognize the key he offers to his readers. I stumbled across it years ago while on a trip, staying overnight in a rustic cabin with a Gideon’s Bible that fell open to the Letter of James, which began with the words: “James a bondservant!” Then, I found that this is the same wording of that first verse of James in Fleming’s personal Bible—and I think this is where he chose the name James Bond. In addition, all the seven deadlier sins are in the Letter of James. Thus, my book is a Bible Study with James Bond.  Many groups have conducted this study and found it rich and challenging.

Join them!

 

 

Benjamin Pratt: Good Grief, Lucy! I thought you said, “Hug!”

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

In a decade of writing columns for ReadTheSpirit magazine—and several books for our publishing house—I have learned that our community of writers is blessed with what our friend Suzy Farbman likes to call GodSigns.

Last week, in the midst of a serious illness—no, it wasn’t COVID—I often thought of that classic image of Charlie Brown shouting “Good Grief!” That was pretty much my spiritual sentiment in the midst of my discomfort and sleepless nights. In fact, one night when I could not sleep, I wrote this column stream-of-consciousness and emailed it to Editor David Crumm.

“Perfect! So timely!” he emailed back.

“Really?”

“Yes, we’ve got a ReadTheSpirit Cover Story on Monday all about how much we need hugs these days, after more than a year in this awful pandemic,” David wrote back.

“I guess that fits,” I wrote back to David. “I’ll trust you, as always, to add a few final touches to have this all make sense.”

Then—as he often does—David dug deeper into that image of Charlie Brown shouting his favorite expression of anguish. And, here’s the GodSign—

We are coming up on the 70th anniversary, next summer, of the first time Charles Schulz put those two famous words in one of Charlie’s dialogue bubbles. You’ll be startled by the coincidence. Here is that original June 2, 1952, comic strip when Charlie utters those words for the first time:

Yes, indeed, there is a connection between what was rumbling around in my sleep-deprived, mid-cold meditations—and our common need for a good old fashioned hug.

But what’s so funny about that? Why have Charlie Brown’s chronic woes made us smile for so long?

The truth is: Life is as much about loss as it is about love and relationships, homes, health, jobs, dreams and all the other wonderful things that bring us joy.

Grief is the normal and natural response to such loss. Grief is that condition we experience when someone or something that matters deeply to us is no longer accessible in the way we want. Grief is painful, but grief also is good because it is the only way we can hope to move from our pain toward the “good” things we treasure such as love, joy, the capacity to risk, engagement, gratitude and generosity.

The refusal to mourn generally leads to bad results. The refusal to face loss leads to bitterness, anger, resentment, fear and attempts to excessively control.

So, I think Charlie Brown is correct. Grief really is good.

I am coming to the conviction that grieving—how we go about moving through losses and how we come to terms with life as it is given—may be the most important spiritual process in our lives. That’s especially true as we age, for as we get older and older the losses come faster and more varied.

Grieving involves the capacity to risk again and again, which is necessary if we hope to rediscover the many joys awaiting us in life.

‘How do we travel this spiritual journey of grief?’

How do we travel this spiritual journey of grief? Or, how can we heal from a broken heart?

First, we need to realize that grieving takes time—an especially hard truth to accept in our age of instant gratification. This process isn’t fast. The time for grieving may be in direct proportion to the intensity of the loss, and, therefore, it is quite personal. As Shakespeare tells us through Othello: “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” The degrees through which we must journey to heal are often shock, anger, guilt, depression, bargaining, and then maybe healing acceptance.

Losses caused by sin—another’s violation of us or our violation of another—are the most difficult to heal, because these involve forgiveness. Forgiveness then becomes part of the grieving process. Forgiveness is the ability to give up the hope of a different past. Forgiveness is freeing. It is well worth the difficult journey, because forgiveness holds the promise of freeing us to make a trusting leap of faith back into the unknowns of life.

We live our best lives when we dare to hope and risk again.

A Lesson from Ian Fleming’s Bond, James Bond

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

As much as Charles Shultz, the Bible and Shakespeare have shaped my life, I also continue to draw on the literary wisdom of Ian Fleming. And, please note that my own book about Fleming’s spiritual reflections is inspired by his novels, not the movies that always have strayed widely from the original texts.

In Fleming’s cycle of 007 novels, James Bond actually was married—only once and very briefly.

Bond’s wife was shot and killed by Bond’s archenemy on the day of their wedding. Shattered by grief, Bond began to lose his edge: He didn’t show up for work; he began to deal with his loss by drinking, eating too much, gambling, losing his sense of mission.

His boss, M, has Bond examined by a psychiatrist/neurologist named Sir James Malony. This all unfolds in the novel You Only Live Twice. Finally, Malony reports to M that Bond is in shock and that his behavior is quite appropriate.

Then he says the thing that captured my attention: “We must teach them that there is no top to disaster.”

Shocking! Yes, but true. For all the commonplace reassurances that “life will never give you more than you can handle”—in fact, there is no limit to disaster or to grief.

Then, equally as shocking is Sir James Malony’s prescription for Bond: “We must give him an impossible job.” In contrast to our thought that he should take a month on a cruise liner, we hear that “he should be given an impossible job.”

So M sends Bond on a mission to infiltrate and destroy a castle created for people who have lost faith in life, a castle where people can kill themselves. The man who created this castle of death is the same devil who killed Bond’s wife. By confronting and killing the devil of despair, Bond confronts his own despair and is on the road to healing his own wounds. Yes, it is an allegory that is as much about the inner journey as the outer journey.

Turning Outward to Heal

Let me be clear that I am not Sir James Malony—and I would never urge a person I was counseling to get over their grief by immediately throwing themselves into some grand mission. We do need to reach the point of turning outward, but only after we have done the painful interior work of feeling our loss. Talk with friends who have been involved with hospice services. They will tell you that volunteers are not accepted to serve in hospice programs if they are not at least one year away from a significant death among their own loved ones.

Grief takes time, but the outcome we hope eventually will be that outward turning, once again.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said, upon the death of a close friend: “I must love myself into action lest I wither in despair.”

Let me close with a song prayer that captures the tension of longing for safety and yearning to embrace the promise of the future. This song, written by Julie Miller in 1993, was sung by Juliet Turner at the memorial service in Omagh, Northern Ireland, following the market place bombing that killed 29 and injured hundreds.

Broken Dreams

You can have my heart though it isn’t new
Its been used and broken
and only comes in blue
It’s been down a long road
and it got dirty along the way
If I give it to you will you make it clean
and wash the shame away

You can have my heart
if you don’t mind broken things
You can have my life
if you don’t mind these tears
Well I heard that you make old things new
so I give these pieces all to you
If you want it you can have my heart

So beyond repair nothing I could do
I tried to fix it myself but it was only worse
when I got through

Then you walked into my darkness
and you speak words so sweet
and you hold me like a child
till my frozen tears fall at your feet

You can have my heart
if you don’t mind broken things.

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Care to read more?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Based near Washington D.C., the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a retired pastoral counselor with 40 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a retired member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Before COVID struck, he travels widely to work with groups, conferences and other events. Even in the pandemic, he continues this work virtually. He has been a keynote speaker and is a veteran of designing workshops and weekend retreats, which he has conducted nationwide. He writes regularly for ReadTheSpirit online magazine and also is a featured columnist at the website for the popular Day1 radio network.

His book, A Guide for Caregivers, has helped thousands of families nationwide cope with the wide array of challenges involved as more than 50 million of us serve as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. In 2021, Ben will continue to write about caregiving issues for us.

His book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, explores some of the themes in this week’s Holy Week column, including an in-depth look at Accidie.

If you find these books helpful, and if you suggest that your small group discuss these books, we would love to hear from you about your response, ideas and questions. Or, if you are interested in ordering these books in quantity, please contact us at [email protected]

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Ancient Wisdom for Our Troubled Times: Journey through Holy Week with the Holy Twins

THE HOLY TWINS—St. Benedict and St. Scholastica watch over the city of Prague in the Czech republic from high atop the Church of the Annunciation.

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EDITOR’s NOTE—At ReadTheSpirit magazine, since our founding in 2007, we have asked writers of various faiths to describe for us the experience of traveling through their holy seasons. This week, our longtime columnist and author Benjamin Pratt invites us on a journey through Christian Holy Week. (And, to our Orthodox friends in the eastern branches of Christianity: We know your calendar places Holy Week in the final days of April this year—and we hope these reflections this week are an inspiring preview for you.)

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

Let’s start our journey into the Christian Holy Week by recalling the timely wisdom of the Holy Twins.

Benedict of Nursia, (c. 620 AD)—who built on the ancient wisdom of the Essenes, the Desert Fathers and Augustine—integrated monastic life into the lives of ordinary people by welcoming them to participate in the monastic disciplines of education, agriculture and liturgy. Regular ReadTheSpirit followers have seen numerous reminders of the timely relevance, today, of Benedict’s centuries-old rules, including this 2018 cover story with poet Judith Valente.

Lesser known in this country is Benedict’s twin sister. Saint Scholastica is the patron of Benedictine nuns, education and convulsive children, and is invoked against storms and rain. According to a long Christian tradition, she is identified also as the twin sister of Benedict and shows up in icons, statues and illuminated manuscripts around the world. To this day, for example, she and her brother look out across the historic city of Prague, where a resurgence of faith played a catalytic role in the downfall of Communism 30 years ago.

Benedict and his twin sister focused on the Way, the Path of Jesus. Through their teachings, Benedict and Scholastica encouraged the sensible redirecting of one’s ordinary life toward a Christ-centered life. Their goal was to help people expand their awareness of Christ’s presence in their everyday lives as they seek to follow the Christic journey.

What can the Holy Twins teach us today? Consider this: Benedict lived in a time when the positive values of culture and community seemed to be crumbling all around him. On the one hand, Benedict rejected the lavish excesses of wealthy Roman families. On the other hand, he recognized that European culture more broadly was disintegrating as the old Roman Empire had been repeatedly invaded and had slowly collapsed. His collected disciplines, or rule, became the foundation for many other religious communities and was credited with stabilizing and reviving European culture. In the 20th Century, popes elevated him to the status of Europe’s patron saint.

Benedict’s and Scholastica’s history and legacy are not unique. In fact, nearly all of history’s great religious movements—in Christianity and in other global religious traditions—arose to confront and address major social crises.

Perhaps we need a new monastic order for our chaotic era, today.

For a few moments, then, let us approach the Christian Holy Week as a spiritual tradition, evoking the disciplines of Benedict and Scholastica, day by day.

The Call of Jesus

“I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life,” says Jesus in the Gospel of John. The Way calls followers of Jesus into the Christic Journey that can transform our lives and the world.

Just a few months ago, Christians acknowledged that Christmas celebrates two birthdays—the historical birth of Jesus and our birth into the life and way of Jesus. Then, as the year turns, Holy Week now leads us into the most intense part of this journey with Jesus.

There are many Christian traditions around the world that mark Holy Week—community customs, songs, liturgies, family traditions, food and even different ways of counting the days on our calendars. Together, they represent a vast global journey that passes three timeless pillars in this journey:

  • Friday, the day Jesus was tacked to a tree, the day in which his spirit was broken.
  • Saturday, the long day of waiting, some say the day Jesus descended into hell.
  • Sunday, Easter morning, the day of the resurrection of Jesus, which made Jesus our Christ.

I invite you, then, to go deeper with me into these three days.

Ask yourself: Where are you on your own Christic journey? Do you feel yourself stuck in Friday, or are you, like so many, trapped in Saturday? Or, have you reached the triumphant spiritual “Yes!” of Sunday morning?

FRIDAY—When Our Dreams Collide with …

First, as we prepare for Friday, it is helpful to ask some of the questions we share: What are we yearning for? Dreaming for? Hoping for in our lives, our families, our communities and our world?

At some point in the midst of these hopes and dreams—every one of us has hit a Friday. For many, the current virus is a Friday. At some point, nearly all of us have been thrown up against a rock, or tacked to a tree, and our dreams have been devastated, our innocence violated. Those are the Fridays of our lives.

Ask yourself: When was my spirit broken? What broke it? Did that brokenness threaten or even destroy my faith in myself, in others or in God? For some of us, these questions take us way back. Perhaps our innocence was violated very early by an angry mother or a distant or absent father, by alcohol in the family, or by physical or emotional abuse.

This week, to go even deeper into this part of the journey, I invite you to read Lucille Sider’s deeply moving Holy Week story, titled: Forgiving My Father. Some of us, in reading Lucille’s story, will recall our own similar moments of brokenness.

Or perhaps that brokenness took a different form in your life. I will never forget a friend telling me that, when she was 7 years old, her beloved uncle—who had seemed to embody all the goodness in life—died of cancer. “Something in me wasn’t sure where God was, and whether I could believe in goodness any longer,” she recalled.

For some of us of a certain age, the brokenness was the horror of discovering that our senior trip was heading toward the jungles of Vietnam. And for others, it was when our marital dream died. Or we dreamed of who we were supposed to be in this world, but we never opened that door. Or we didn’t have the children that we thought we would have, or we had more children than we thought we would have, or a child of ours became mentally ill or a child died.

On these Fridays, the pain is excruciating, and it is very appropriate to be angry or in deep grief.

SATURDAY—the Temptation of Accidie

Fortunately, most of us don’t live our lives stuck in Friday. We move to Saturday. The temptation for many of us is that we can become Saturday’s child. Remember the nursery rhyme? Saturday’s child works hard for a living.

For Saturday is the janitorial day of life. It’s the errand day. It’s the “get-through-it” day. For some of us, it’s the day when grief and anger can combine into a flat, soft, cynical bitterness. It may even lead to a kind of spiritual deadness.

Stuck in this endless Saturday cycle? It’s the kind of life in which we don’t feel any spice, any vitality, any vigor. The Desert Fathers and Mothers called this “accidie”—one of the so-called seven deadly sins.

Why is accidie such a dangerous temptation? Because it can cascade into other sins. In our accidie, we may turn to lust, perhaps affairs. We may turn to gluttony. Or, avarice might send us into obsessive buying. We may be laboring so hard each day that everyone else thinks we are just fine—and yet we are aching to fill our empty hearts. We are trapped.

I have written about this powerful spiritual struggle many times over the years, including in my book about Ian Fleming and James Bond. In the Middle Ages, “accidie” was translated as “sloth” or “torpor.” But, this is a spiritual condition and is distinctly different from either physical exhaustion or depression. In accidie, we loose all energy for engaging the world. The needs, the goals and even the good and the evil around us do not matter enough to inspire any action.

Falling into accidie is not a sin in itself. The sins—the separations from a fuller life—arise when we fail to recognize that we are stuck in the Saturday of accidie and never search for ways to resist its clutches.

SUNDAY—A New and Right Spirit

We all yearn for Sunday morning, the day of a clean and restored heart.

Eternal life begins now!

This is a resurrection of our spirit within our daily life—a spirit filled with gratitude, joy and hope that we share in daily service of others. Yes, the Resurrection gives us hope of life beyond this life—but first it gives us hope of life within this journey, this Way! It is the day that even with your broken spirit you are able, perhaps with a limp in your soul, to sing a Doxology.

Doxology is one of the oldest forms of Christian praise. A modern rendering is:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God, all creatures here below;
Praise God for all that love has done;
Creator, Christ and Spirit, One. 

Sunday is the day we can say humbly that life is good as it is given. I like to pray: Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, not a cynical spirit, not a bitter spirit. God will not reject a humble and repentant heart.

So let’s look together at the hope of Sunday morning. How do we get there? How do we prevent ourselves from staying Saturday’s child? I’m going to give you a spiritual solution because it is a spiritual problem.

Religion is for people who try to stay out of hell. Spirituality is for those of us who have already been there.

Sing a New Song

So what is the first spiritual answer? This is where the wisdom of Benedict’s disciplines really shines through in our Christic journey. The first spiritual corrective, the first spiritual discipline, is singing.

How long has it been since you’ve just burst forth in song? You don’t have to do it when somebody is near—but try it at some point. Yes, actually burst forth in song!

In the early 1600’s, Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in a small town in Germany.  An infectious disease spread throughout his community and more than half his congregation was lost. He conducted as many as 50 funerals a day. And in the midst of that loss, he wrote the hymn, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices.” It is one of the most powerful faith statements ever uttered. Can you imagine in the midst of that loss singing that song?

So here’s an invitation. For the next 30 days, perhaps at your lunch hour, find a few private minutes and sing that hymn. Or, you may want to do what I have been doing in the morning for many years. I sing the Doxology.

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through singing.

The Work of Our Hands

And in addition to singing, Benedict knew that we need to labor with our hands.

We need manual labor. So much of the work we do in our times is intangible work. It is mental, emotional, relational work. An excellent way to combat our accidie is to get into some good, hard manual labor.  St. John of Damascus in the eighth century defined accidie as “a sorrowfulness so weighing down the mind that there is no good it likes to do. It has attached to it as its inseparable comrade a distress and a weariness of soul and a sluggishness in all good works which plunges the whole person into a lazy languor and works in him or her a constant, slow, lazy bitterness.” We all know that at times of idleness or unemployment, we are more liable to succumb to accidie. But often we need more than the intellectual or emotional drain of everyday work.

We need a work that involves our whole physical being.

Henri Nouwen, who spent seven months in the Genesee monastery in New York, labored lifting rocks and digging ditches and sorting pebbles out of raisins that went into raisin bread (thank you, Henry).  And he wrote this about the value of manual labor: “Manual work indeed unmasks my illusions. It shows me how I am constantly looking for interesting, exciting, distracting activities to keep my mind busy and away from the confrontation with my nakedness and powerlessness, my mortality and my weakness.  Dull work at least opens up my basic defenselessness and makes me vulnerable. I hope and pray that this vulnerability will not make me fearful or angry but instead open to the very gifts of God’s grace.”

For my wife Judith and me, gardening enriches our souls. I did a little planting already this week. For Gandhi it was weaving. And there are even the mundane chores of vacuuming, washing dishes by hand or carefully preparing traditional foods.

Want a great suggestion? A 12-bean Ecuadorian Holy Week soup called Fanesca is described, this week in Doug Yunker’s column, titled: A Reflection on the Wonders of Holy Week: The Jesus Cabinet of Curiosities and a traditional soup of many beans. Read some of the recipes for Franesca at the end of Doug’s column. Making that soup? It’s work!

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through manual labor.

Turning to Prayer

As we continue along this Christic Journey, many of us will discover that what kills accidie outright is prayer. A decade ago in this magazine, I shared this prayer that I have found helpful in wrestling with accidie. However, I do not want to mislead you. To meet the attack of accidie with prayer means more than just a quick appeal to drive away the black mood.

All of the steps I have described are part of a larger spiritual transformation. For if we really dedicate ourselves to this entire process, all kinds of things begin to happen. Right away we are beginning to rise from the dead, for whenever we honestly turn our thoughts to God, then new life begins to happen in us.  We shall be reminded again and again through prayer of the great and good purposes of the living God.

For many years I have been inviting couples especially to pray daily the prayer of St.  Francis. In marriage counseling, I focus especially on the middle portion of that prayer, “Lord help me to seek more to understand than to be understood, more to console than to be consoled, more to love than to be loved.” And some people have taken it very seriously. I’ve been absolutely amazed. One couple has prayed it together even when they are out of town. The husband sat in my office, with the tears running down his face, “Never in my whole life did I imagine I would be more interested in understanding my wife than in forcing her to understand me.”

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through prayer.

Hospitality, the Doorway to Community

And finally, the fourth spiritual discipline is to be in community, to remain hospitable—to be in a community that does not forget the least among us and seeks God in all things.

Shortly after Front Edge Publishing was founded in 2007, I became one of the publishing house’s first authors, attracted to this team’s founding principle: Good media builds healthy community. And, we say: A book is a community between two covers. Now, 14 years later, our collective community of writers and writings—including my own contributions to many books—circles the world. I have told stories, shared prayers and songs and poems, and invited readers into a larger spiritual community along with friends we have met in Europe, Africa, Asia and, of all places on the planet, New Zealand.

So, what is “community”? It is closely related to compassion, humility and hospitality.

One of my favorite examples happened just a few years ago in Seattle, Washington, at the Special Olympics. Nine children lined up on the starting line for the 100 yard dash, and the gun went off, and these children began to move with great relish! But, before they were even one-third of the way, one child tripped and fell, skinned his knee, bloodied his hand and begin to cry. By that time, all the other children were farther ahead of him, but one by one they began to stop and turn around. And one little girl with Down’s syndrome knelt down and kissed his forehead and said, “This will make it feel better.”  And each of the other children helped pull this child to his feet and all nine children, locked arm-in-arm, walked across the finish line together.

Thousands of people came to their feet and cheered—and cheered—and cheered.

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, with singing, prayer, manual labor and with community.

And to all of our friends around the world, I wish you a glorious struggle and triumphant renewal in this Holy Week laid out before us—and I wish our Orthodox friends the same a month from now.

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Care to read more?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Based near Washington D.C., the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a retired pastoral counselor with 40 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a retired member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Before COVID struck, he travels widely to work with groups, conferences and other events. Even in the pandemic, he continues this work virtually. He has been a keynote speaker and is a veteran of designing workshops and weekend retreats, which he has conducted nationwide. He writes regularly for ReadTheSpirit online magazine and also is a featured columnist at the website for the popular Day1 radio network.

His book, A Guide for Caregivers, has helped thousands of families nationwide cope with the wide array of challenges involved as more than 50 million of us serve as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. In 2021, Ben will continue to write about caregiving issues for us.

His book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, explores some of the themes in this week’s Holy Week column, including an in-depth look at Accidie.

If you find these books helpful, and if you suggest that your small group discuss these books, we would love to hear from you about your response, ideas and questions. Or, if you are interested in ordering these books in quantity, please contact us at [email protected]

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Benjamin Pratt—’Want to talk with me, or only at me?’

EDITOR’S NOTE—Among Benjamin Pratt’s inspiring books is Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, a spiritual exploration of the “7 deadlier sins” that best-selling author Ian Fleming set out to explore as he wrote his series of James Bond novels. That thought-provoking book, also known as A James Bond Bible Study—has sparked spirited small-group discussion around the world from New Zealand to New York City. In his column this week, Ben returns to teaching on the nature of sin as he grapples with the moral forces behind the rush to confirm a new Supreme Court justice.

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Care to read more about the context of “7 deadlier sins” as journalist and novelist Ian Fleming saw these moral challenges? In this book, author Benjamin Pratt invites readers to explore Fleming’s Bond novels and rediscover the moral threats that Fleming thought all of us will have to face in our world, today. CLICK ON this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

As the culture wars intensify since the death of RBG, numerous columnists, citizens and politicians have decried the hypocrisy of those rushing to fill her seat prior to the election. Hypocrisy is certainly a common evil but not an accurate description of the behavior we are seeing right ow.

In a war, it is best to accurately know the enemy, the one without and the one within ourselves. What is the proper way to describe the moral challenge we face? What is the name of this sin?

“For neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible, except to God alone,” declares John Milton in Paradise Lost.

The Greek root of hypocrisy, hupokrinein, a word sometimes translated as “pretending” or “theatrical,” refers to acting a part in a play. Hypocrisy is basic to our human condition. We all maintain the veneer of respectability, but none of us can be perfectly congruent in thought and action, so we are by definition hypocrites.

Like diamonds, hypocrisy is forever.

But that is not the name of the evil culprit with which we are grappling now. No, we are wrestling here with something else—with political fundamentalism or self-righteousness. Identifying this is crucial to the public debate.

Self-righteousness is the fuel of our cultural wars. When this particular tenet of our self is paramount, there is little or no room for tolerance. It becomes our orthodoxy to live and die by this vision. It becomes paramount over abiding in an integrated community, E Pluribus Unum. Armed with our convictions, the faithful are certain about the behavior of others and equally certain about the heresy of the infidels who are not part of their fold. The righteous are armed with the knowledge that God has shown them the right way, and all other ways are false.

Hypocrisy is the natural cover for such an arrogant soul. Hypocritical self-righteousness is about perceived height. Those who envision themselves towering above the common herd of humankind are responsible only to the vision behind their own eyeballs. The bitter irony is that these twin towers of duplicity—hypocrisy and self-righteousness—place the evil person beyond the possibility of reconciliation, redemption and community. The loss of community as our highest vision means the loss of E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one (the motto of the US).

Understanding the true danger of self-righteousness is crucial, because we tend to regard this problem as a rather benign blemish on the backside of the overly religious. From Dickens and Twain to Hollywood, self-righteousness is standard fare in American comedy. We tend to chuckle about it and forget it, but the truth is: Self-righteousness is a potentially deadly evil, the malevolent force behind war as well as more common forms of pain that we visit on each other for a whole array of political, cultural and religious violations.

The blood of the innocent flowed in more than one corner of the world on August 19, 2003. In Iraq, a truck loaded with explosives reached the corner of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad. The crime claimed the lives of Iraqis and foreigners, including one of the most talented United Nations diplomats of his generation, Sergio Vieira de Mello. On the same day a bus bomb in Jerusalem killed at least 18 people and injured scores more, including many children on their way home from the Western Wall. Both despicable acts were committed by self-righteous terrorists whose goal was to disrupt peace, plant fear, take vengeance and thwart the hopes of the majorities of Palestinians, Israelis and Iraqis who do not share the terrorist vision of the world. Imagining their vision superior to that of the majority, and buoyed by their vision of a vengeful god, they deny and disrupt attempts at building peaceful communities.

This has erupted close to home. In 1994, Paul Hill fired a shotgun into a pickup truck outside the Ladies Clinic in Pensacola, Florida, killing physician John Britton and his security escort James Barrett, plus wounding Barrett’s wife. A Presbyterian minister, Hill claimed the killings were “justifiable homicide” to protect unborn children. He remained defiant until his execution in September, 2003, self-righteously saying he felt no remorse for the slayings and was certain of his reward in heaven.

Terrorism is spiritually rooted in self-righteousness. Behind the eyes of the terrorist is a vision of the world that tolerates no other vision—to the point that all other perceptions of the world must be obliterated at any cost. Terrorists think in absolutes. They are purists.

Here’s a simple test for signs of self-righteousness in a person you’re encountering: Does this person want to talk with me, or only at me?

When individuals or groups fix the boundaries of political, cultural or religious tenets, especially ones that exclude people, the seeds of self-righteousness are sown. As we close the doors of dialogue, we are declaring: “We know precisely who God is and what Good is, and therefore, we know who the Devil is and what Evil is.”

We claim to vanquish doubt without realizing that doubt is an essential ingredient of faith. If you doubt this, simply read the journals of countless saints right down to modern heroes like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa.

In the writings of Ian Fleming and others who have explored the deadly sins down through the ceturies—self-righteousness is the loftiest head of the evil dragon.

From a position of imagined superior height this swelled head lives, isolated with his or her own almighty, vengeful god, casting scorn and contempt on all the lesser beings for whom there is only negative judgment, and with whom there is no community.

Unless we conquer this war within, there will be no E Pluribus Unum!

Fields of Dreams: In October, our ‘American Odyssey’ calls us home

Ed and Jean Pratt grave Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania Photo by Debra DeSantis

The Pratt family gravesite at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Debra DeSantis.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author and Contributing Columnist

Baseball—
The crack of the bat,
The sweep of the curve,
The slide into second base.

My dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

As millions of Americans step into October, each year, the liturgical season of baseball either brings elation or somber reflection on what might happen next year.

Yes, there’s always next year, isn’t there?

Filmmaker Ken Burns understood this kind of timeless spiritual yearning, calling baseball the “American Odyssey.” In his 18-hour documentary, Baseball, narrator John Chancellor tells us: “It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers, and it reflects a host of age-old American tensions, between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope—and coming home.”

If we are true fans of the game, those words give us a little shiver, don’t they?

What that soaring description misses is that each American’s odyssey is as much a solitary pilgrimage as it is collective. Surely, you have your own.

And, this is mine. The memories and dreams all flowed back recently as I walked across my father’s final field.

My wife Judith and I had not visited my parents’ gravesite in a decade. Like Odysseus, we came back armed—packing grass clippers, fearing that we might need to catch up on 10 years of grave tending.

At journey’s end, we rolled our car to a stop along the lane through Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Got out. Stretched our legs.

Strolled across the lush green.

Sure enough, the grass had crept right over the evidence of his name and lifespan—Mom’s too, etched beside him in stone. I couldn’t help but think of Carl Sandburg: “I am the grass. I cover all.”

In that granite, now partially obscured, all that is left of these two people for the world to see is a few words and dates—the simplest of signs that, somewhere below that verdant expanse, lies:

PRATT
THOMAS EDWIN, 1908-1985
GENEVIEVE OPAL, 1917-1980

Time has obscured so much. Yes, those are facts. But those weren’t their names. They were Ed and Jean to friends.

To us: Dad and Mom.

In Ken Burns’ potent phrase—”between workers and owners”—Mom and Dad lived their lives on the “workers” half of that balance. They labored so hard, and yet remained so poor, that I only made it into college because of a scholarship.

In fact, they were so poor that, despite my failing eyesight in high school, we had no money for me to afford an eye exam and glasses. There went my own baseball career! I will never forget a ball nearly taking my head off in one big game—a ball I never saw coming.

We were so poor that, for years, some of us slept in an unheated attic in a tiny house we shared with other family.

So poor, I told Judith, “I don’t think Dad could have ever afforded a ticket to a world series game when his beloved Pirates were playing.”

She shook her head. “Never heard any mention of a world series game.”

“During the regular season, I know he made it to the old Forbes Field more than once,” I said. “Remember that old story he loved to tell about going with his buddies, one time, and downing so many hot dogs that—”

“Of course!” Judith said. She has heard these tales far too many times, already, but she was game once more on this special occasion. “Fourteen hotdogs, wasn’t it? I think that’s how the story went.”

“Maybe 14 hotdogs,” I said, “but I think, by the time he told it the last time, it was 16 or more. Who knows?”

We looked at each other and smiled. The truth is: All too soon, given our own stage in life, there won’t be anyone left to keep telling that story.

The work at hand refocused our resolve. We stooped to trim the grave.

“One thing’s sure,” I said at length. “He loved baseball more than anything or anyone in life.”

Judith looked it me. That was quite a statement. She had heard me say that many times before, but it remains a startling truth. Dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

“It’s just a fact,” I said.

As a young man in the Great Depression, Dad did whatever he could to survive. He hustled pool in the winter—and pitched semi-pro ball in the spring, summer and fall.

“His greatest dream was that I’d grow up to be a major league ball player,” I said. “Too bad we didn’t have the money to figure out why I was losing my eyesight.”

Judith, always the reality check, said, “Oh, and you think glasses was the only reason you didn’t turn into Willie Stargell or Barry Bonds?”

Yeah, right.

I chuckled. “But, that’s not the kind of baseball I’m thinking about right now,” I said. “I’m talking about the baseball in his blood.”

Dad grew up playing rough and eventually made it onto a semi-pro team sponsored by a gas company. He loved to tell about a game in the 1930s in a country field just over the Pennsylvania line in rural West Virginia—so poorly suited to the sport that a dirt road ran right through the diamond.

“No kidding,” Dad would say, “I’m talking right smack through the pitcher’s mound and home plate! If we heard a car coming, we had to pause the game. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The left fielder could not even see the right fielder, because there was a hill between them!”

He lived for baseball.

He paid the bills as an auto mechanic, which meant his fingernails always were tinged with black grease, no matter how hard he scrubbed. I can still see that left hand with the black-rimmed nails pressing a transistor radio to his ear, so that he could hear his Pirates play. When we moved from southwestern Pennsylvania up to Erie—blocks from the lake—he used to hole up in the attic to listen.

“So, I won’t disturb anyone,” he would say.

The truth was: He didn’t want anyone interrupting the best part of his week—those exciting adventures at the ball park brought to life by the creative narration of the Pirates’ Rosey Rowswell.

An extra-base hit wasn’t just a stat to Rosey. It was “a doozie maroonie!” Oh, he had a million of ’em.

And the best? When a Pirate slugged a home run, Rosey’s voice would soar as if yelling over his shoulder: “Raise the window, Aunt Minnie! Here it comes! Right into your petunia patch!” Then, we all heard it—the glass shattering! “Awww, that’s too bad,” Rosey would say. “Aunt Minnie never made it in time.”

I suppose there’s a prayer in that vibrant life of eternal hope, as Dad curled up in the sweltering attic on a hot summer’s afternoon with that little radio piping Rosey’s voice directly into his ear.

I mean: God, Dad loved baseball.

Baseball was his odyssey and, for a time, our shared journey. The hard truth about all such pilgrimages, though, is that they span time and expose all manner of human frailty. Dad’s body stooped more each year—the weight of his own life and limitations. He was bent even further by the burden of Mom’s debilitating illness—rheumatoid arthritis—that took the ferocious form of insufferable pain. Dad was helpless in the face of it—no way he could make her feel better. Every day, her body was wracked with pain, the joints distorted so much her hands would not close.

Somewhere in that saga, a particular line of that family story was draped around my shoulders: Mom became an invalid because I was born. That became part of our family odyssey—and I had to live with that onus for many years.

All in all: A curse from Hell played out in our tiny home. Eventually, Mom died too young. Just 63.

When we first laid that shared cemetery marker for them, more than three decades ago, the granite slab stood just above the blades of grass, formally proclaiming the family name even from a distance: PRATT.

Now, as Judith and I paid our respects, we could see Sandburg’s sod swallowing what we had tried to establish there.

I was about to say something about that to Judith—when another vivid memory stopped me cold.

It was Dad, standing right there in that field just after Mom’s death. We had just buried her and Dad raised his hand toward the distance—pointing over toward a line of far bigger stones in the distance. My eye followed his fingertip.

“This cemetery has two sides,” he said, “that one over there with the big monuments—and our side where everyone is equal.”

I can still hear his matter-of-fact intonation of that phrase: “Our side where everyone is equal.”

It wasn’t a boast. It wasn’t a political statement. It was fact. Just a fact about his place in this world.

And, somewhere in those words, I think there might have been another prayer.

God, in the end, we are all equal.

I stood beside Judith, as we stared at their granite marker all these decades later.

I gazed up along the cemetery’s gentle, sloping hillside with a lane running through it.

This could be that West Virginia ballpark with that lane right through the pitcher’s mound all the way to home plate.

For a moment, I closed my eyes. Someday—

Someday, before the grave marker is completely swallowed by the sod, perhaps my father will rise.

He might use the marker as the rubber on his pitching mound to hurl a few fastballs again.

He just might pitch a no hitter! Why not? Our dream once was to be baseball stars. Make it a no hitter!

We both set out on that journey with high hopes—and only discovered life’s many truths along the way.

Dad did make it to Forbes Field a few times, at least, as a spectator. But, no, I don’t think he ever could have afforded a ticket to a World Series game—and there were precious few, of course, in the span of his life. He was only a baby in 1909 when the Pirates won their first World Series. Then, throughout the rest of his life, there were only five more trips to the Series: ’25, ’27, ’60, ’71 and ’79.

Yet, every autumn—whatever had unfolded since March—October was a special season all its own, defined by hope. If not for this year, then for another.

Yes, there definitely is a prayer somewhere in that odyssey. One day—

One day—we might stand together in a field of our dreams, once again.

And tell the stories that define our lives.

At the end of our journey to Dad’s final field, Judith and I packed up our clippers and returned to our car.

We buckled up, started the car. All too soon, reality set in again. You can’t avoid the truth. All too soon, who will be left to tell these stories we love so much?

Well, in this moment, I’ve given this story to you. Even in this instant, it’s a part of your own odyssey.

Ben and Ed Pratt during Little League season.

Dad as my Little League coach. He is in the upper right and I’m sitting second from his right.